The shuttering of Aldino’s—the interesting if inconsistent Scott Harris-Dean Zanella pan-Italian effort that briefly inhabited 626 S. Racine—is exhibit A in the case against the so-called restaurant renaissance of Little Italy. Sure, there are good things happening at Three Aces and at Harris’s Davanti Enoteca, but the apparent disinterest of a major university community in a truly novel-for-the-neighborhood endeavor was discouraging.
Harris’s comeback, this time with Jimmy Bannos Sr., is also a step back, resurrecting Gennaro’s, the Taylor Street red-sauce joint that banked a half-century’s worth of neighborhood goodwill before closing in 2009. Servers at Salatino’s never fail to remind you that Mary Jo Gennaro herself is in the kitchen, overseeing execution of the original recipes, and though some murky dispute kept the original name off the door, blown-up black-and-white family photos are plastered all over the place.
In Gennaro they have a beloved, critic-proof figurehead, and though I suspected she might be present in name only, on a busy Sunday night when staffers were apologizing for service disruptions caused by a comrade’s no-show, she appeared in the dining room with a pad and began kicking ass and taking orders.
What comes out of that kitchen is less surprising: obscenely huge portions of red-gravy-drenched pastas and meats that underscore Italian-American stereotypes just as pervasively as anything perpetrated by The Sopranos or The Godfather. Apparently this typically American legacy of overindulgence as applied to southern Italian food never gets old. Small family-style salads feed one to two people—supersize them and feed a quartet. A braciola football of lean, dry beef sits awash in a sea of nicely al dente cavatelli in red gravy. Despite its mushiness, a special of ricotta lasagna fed two happy children for two days. Heaping pasta plates—customizable with the somewhat bland red gravy (not enough salt, and surprisingly little sugar), arrabbiata, marinara, or vodka sauces—are unpredictable, alternately overcooked or perfectly al dente. Add mushy meatballs—nothing on Zanella’s—to any of the pastas or the soft, fennel-perfumed sausage that gets top billing with an plate of garlicky escarole. Veal and chicken Milanese and scaloppine; eggplant, chicken, or veal Parmigiano; manicotti and ravioli are all in evidence, much to the reassurance of the middle-aged crowd.
I was much happier about the big bowl of plump mussels in a thin marinara sauce, the fried sweet Italian peppers with slices of slightly sharp provolone, or the nubby, gnarly house-made egg noodles (essentially fettuccine Alfredo). And then there are the legendary pork chops, honored with a poetic ode hanging on the wall. The thick-cut monsters, piled with fried potatoes and more of those peppers, were Gennaro’s signature, and they’re indeed fantastic, though it should take the average eater at least two sittings to finish them.
We know that Harris and Bannos are more than capable of creating truly groundbreaking restaurants—this just ain’t it. But obviously, if the bustling dining area and bar are any proof, there’s still a place for it in this world. They’ve simply given the people what they want.